Home/ Opinion / Discord at the meeting of technology and human beings

Intense discussions on social media about Zomato’s new 10-minute delivery service and recent news of employees at Amazon’s massive Staten Island warehouse that serves New York City gaining their right to form a trade union might at first look like two disparate events. But on closer inspection, we will realize that the core of both these events are the same. They are pointers to one of the most significant aspects of modern management: the coexistence of technology and humans within an organization.

Zomato’s ability to cut down its home- delivery time to 10 minutes for a select menu of deliverables, as against the existing paradigm of 30 minutes, is clearly the result of tremendous improvements on several fronts. No doubt, technology would have played a massive role in enabling Zomato to make this significant reduction in delivery time. Such leaps in technological improvement should be applauded. Instead, social media discussions have gone ballistic about the safety of delivery agents. Why?

Amazon is considered “one of the most influential economic and cultural forces in the world". It is a perfect example how business success can be built on a foundation of information technology. The massive warehouses Amazon operates are the backbone of its business. In all these units, like the one in Staten Island, almost every function is fully automated, even the recruitment of daily-wage staff. The company’s employment process uses algorithms to recruit daily-wage workers without a single human interaction. This massive investment in automation has paid dividends too. The Staten Island warehouse has helped Amazon smash shipping records, reach stratospheric sales and book the equivalent of the previous three years’ profits rolled into one. But despite all these positive points, why did blue-collar workers at this facility want to form a trade union?

In the light of the massive role technology is playing in the success of companies like Amazon and Zomato, there will always be a tendency to treat minor human-resource related issues as possible outliers. The probability of a delivery agent meeting with an accident is low. It could even be lower than India’s road accident average. The blue-collar workers of an Amazon warehouse are involved only in minor tasks, like stowing items on a robotic shelf. As compared to the gains that technology delivers, the pain points related to employees in tech-driven companies are indeed small. But how come the human story gets so much prominence?

Humans always make comparisons with respect to a reference point. On one hand, there is the massive technological infrastructure that forms the base on which most modern organizations operate. But delivery agents and blue-collar workers are mostly doing the lowliest of jobs in those organizations. Many employers treat them as an ‘expendable work force’ because it is very easy to find replacements for them. Yet, in contrast to the all-powerful, opaque and faceless technology infrastructure of an organization, the story of a single delivery agent’s woes will always stand out. That is proof of the massive role of emotions in all human decisions. So the large rational benefits of technology will always pale in comparison with its emotional consequences on humans. Organizations can thus ignore the disproportionate power of emotions only at their own peril.

Tech companies do give plenty of importance to one set of humans: their end users. For example, Amazon’s mission is to be the most customer-centric company on earth. So there is a lot of focus on smoothening every step of the customer’s journey using technology. Hence user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) advances in technology have gained prominence. But the cases of Zomato and Amazon are a reminder that end users are not the only humans an organization needs. There are many other humans who are part of its path. It is imperative that organizations are seen as taking care of all those who contribute.

There was a time when typical consumers purchased a product without thinking about who manufactured it, let alone how it was manufactured. Today, a customer is concerned not just with the final quality of a product or service, but also with how it was made and/or delivered. The end consumer of a food delivery company, for example, is not just bothered about the time it takes to deliver the product, but also concerned about the safety of the person delivering it. In this context, it is interesting to note that according to Gallup’s latest annual Work and Education poll, 68% of Americans approve of labour unions, their highest approval rating since 1965. This is yet another sign that the role of employees in an organization cannot be ignored.

In the future, companies will pioneer new ways of mass-managing people through technology. These will be heavily reliant on metrics, apps and chatbots, minimizing human contact. With new technologies like food-delivery drones and robots coming into use, one might someday be able to do away with delivery agents altogether. But such an over-reliance on technology should not turn organizations blind to the role of humans, regardless of how minor it is.

Organisations cannot survive by ignoring the humans in their path, nor by trying to steamroll them. Discordant human voices from within should be treated with as much importance as those of end users. The huge advantage that technology brings to the table will not help stifle such voices. More likely, it will only make them louder.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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Updated: 06 Apr 2022, 10:42 PM IST
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